Folk artist uses lyrics to bridge Bolivia, U.S. mining



By Cassidy Herrington

Bolivia and Kentucky share veins. The veins and networks of exploited mines, where thousands of men and women struggle to make a living wage.

In 1967, Jack Herranen was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Knoxville, Tenn., where coal mining is a primary source of economic stability. In 1999, he traveled to Bolivia, where he submersed himself in the plight of the indigenous people and connected the two dissimilar countries.

On Monday afternoon, Herranen articulated this connection through a documentary and his music.

“From the coal towns of Kentucky and eastern Tennessee, down through Guanajuato, and on to Potosi” are the lyrics of Herranen’s song, “Desde Appalachia Hasta Potosi,” or “From Appalachia to Potosi.”

Potosi is a Bolivian city and the site of the largest silver mine in the western hemisphere, where European colonists worked thousands of indigenous and African slaves. In the 1800s, the mine was depleted of its silver reserves, and miners were literally worked to death.

Bolivian musician Gerardo Arias sent Herranen to this haunting town on his second visit to Bolivia. Consequentially, the scenery inspired a grassroots movement and a stream of folk music in Herranen that would continue throughout his life.

“It was a site of extreme atrocities, and it’s not a stretch to use the words ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ [to describe them],” Herranen said.

Herranen started a grassroots movement called “Puentes” or “Bridges” as an effort to promote inter-American solidarity between Bolivian and Appalachian communities. His documentary and music serve to illustrate this connection and inspire a change in perspective about the mining industry, agriculture and the indigenous way of life.

On Monday afternoon, about 40 listeners gathered in the Taylor Education Building auditorium to experience Bolivia through the lyrics of Herranen’s sorrowful melodies and the images of his film.

“The mines may be for silver, gold, tin or coal; But history remains the same, put the poor man in the hole,” Herranen sang.

Herranen addressed the audience donning a vest, worn leather oxfords and a fedora. Under the brim of his hat, he closed his eyes and expressed the sorrows of Bolivians through song.

After each song, Herranen talked about his life in Bolivia, simultaneously strumming quiet, lingering chords. The “veins” Herranen often referred to are both the literal exploited veins of the mines, once filled with minerals, and the social veins that have bound the indigenous people to colonialism and imperialism.

“I needed to bear witness to those open veins and reach an understanding that those veins run up to this country,” Herranen said.

Herranen is now a permanent resident outside of the Bolivian city, Cochabamba, where he lives with his Bolivian wife and two sons. Cochabamba is a traditional agrarian town with an informal economy. The principal source of work is farming, and the indigenous people work with their hands in what Herranen calls, “the good life.”

“We primarily live in an area of Quechua farmers, and I often refer to our neighbors as Andean hillbillies, in a loving way,” Herranen said.

His acoustic guitar was emblazoned with the phrase “todos somos hijos de los campesinos,” or roughly translated, “we are all sons and daughters of hillbillies.”

The local language, Quechua, does not have a literal translation for work, but the closest conversion is “nurture” or “nurturing.” This variation is important in understanding our own culture, Herranen said.

“A fair amount is lost in translation because the concept of nurturance is a word that has deteriorated, something weakened in our culture,” Herranen said.

To better illustrate this divergence in lifestyle, Herranen’s “Puentes” documentary reveals the traditional society of the Andean people through footage of mask making, cooking, farming and festivals. According to the film, festivals are the source of “harmonizing” and “revitalizing” the people.

Herranen accredited the simple agrarian lifestyle exemplified by the Andeans as part of the solution to solving unsustainable development and environmental destruction. This ideology parallels that of Kentucky writer Wendell Berry and “his mid-western counterpart, Wes Jackson,” Herranen said.

Herranen said, “things are so entrenched on the systemic level,” that an alternate perspective is needed to change the system.

Already, Herranen has witnessed improvement with every visiting trip to the U.S.

“I try to carry those experiences when I go back home [to Bolivia],” Herranen said. “I feel that collectively there is a belief that we have to pull ourselves from this impasse.”

The Appalachian Research Community and the Latin American Studies Department organized the event and it was sponsored by the Department of Educational Policies and Evaluation.